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The Dreamers (NC-17)

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Official Site

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Producers: Jeremy Thomas & John Bernard

Written by: Gilbert Adair (based on his novel, The Holy Innocents)

Cast: Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel, Robin Renucci, Anna Chancellor


In the movies, the mundane is revelatory. The filmmaker can focus on the wisp of cigarette smoke, the chipped paint on a fingernail, the downcast eye, and make it all seem so very vital. A story is in truth a series of small moments, distilled through the audience’s willingness to believe in the eventual whole. If we ignore these moments, then we’ve missed the point.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s new film The Dreamers takes as its subject three characters who, though drunk on film and the counterculture that rose around it in the sixties, haven’t taken into account the effect it has on their lives. They watch the films of Godard, von Sternberg, and others, and they restage those films’ moments in their house as epic grandstanding versions of the adolescent prank, believing in these flashes of film lore, all too happy to excise the message itself. These are characters who believe that the grand gesture is the way to meaning.

It’s easy to see why. The Dreamers, set in 1968 Paris, opens with a protest over the firing of Henri Langlois, the leader of Cinematheque Française and one of the preeminent proponents of what would later come to be known as the French New Wave of cinema. The way the protest is staged, film and the love of film take on the importance of revolution on a level with the American civil rights protests of the sixties. In fact, this film protest is indicative of the high emotions surrounding the war raging in Vietnam at that time. It’s a time when people finally figured out that speaking out about what mattered to them was as worthwhile as anything. Wandering through the chaos is Matthew (Pitt), a young American student and conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He sees a beautiful young French woman, Isabelle (Green), chained to the gates of the theater in an act of rebellion. And that’s exactly what it is, too—an act. When Matthew approaches her and mentions the chains, she withdraws her hands with a flourish to show him that she’s just putting everyone on.

Isabelle introduces Matthew to her twin brother, Theo (Garrel), another protestor, and the three spend the rest of the evening together discussing movies and congratulating themselves on their knowledge of film lore. Soon, Matthew is invited to dinner at the twins’ home, and their parents insist that he stay in their spare bedroom for a while instead of his dingy hotel room. Matthew, wide-eyed at the prospect of having made his first French friends, obliges. When the parents leave town for a month, he begins to make discoveries about Theo and Isabelle that, to his surprise, don’t shock him as much as he expected.

During a late night bathroom run, Matthew sticks his head into Theo’s room and sees the twins asleep, lying naked in each other’s arms. When he later confronts them about this, he finds that, while they’re not exactly lovers, they are much closer than any brother and sister probably should be. After divulging this information, Theo and Isabelle see an opportunity to bring Matthew into their circle. What follows is an approximate mènage-a-trois fueled by adolescent name-that-movie mindfucks with decidedly adult “punishments” for getting the answer wrong.

Except these punishments are only adult in theory. Carried out, they resemble childish “doctor” games amped up to acknowledge the physical effects of puberty. After Theo is unable to guess that Isabelle is reenacting a dance from Blonde Venus, he is forced to jerk off onto a poster of Marlene Dietrich while the other two watch. When Matthew cops out on a similar question, he is wrestled into submission, stripped, and made to have sex with Isabelle while Theo watches. The fact that Theo ends up frying eggs while his sister is devirginized on the kitchen floor only underlines how little interest they have in the ultimate outcomes of their games; it’s all about the staging and grandeur of the suggestions.

The whole time the three are holed up in the apartment, the student rebellion against war is waging on the streets outside. And it’s in this juxtaposition that the message is made clear: This erotic utopia of games and bonding is their way of rejecting involvement in the reality of their time. By containing themselves in a haze of sex and their near-spiritual connection, they are putting up their own custom blinders to the call for political action. Before Matthew came along, Theo and Isabelle were out there in the thick. But with Matthew, they have everything they think they need: a project, someone to enlighten, and their eventual love for him gives them the proof they need to believe that what they’re doing matters more than the upheaval on the doorstep. And Matthew, a strident pacifist, has found in Theo and Isabelle a way to shut out the confusion, that clash of his principles with the fact that violent protest may be the only way to the other side of Vietnam. As an actor, Michael Pitt has a distinct presence, but I’ve always felt that he was in danger of being perceived as a teary-eyed version of Leonardo DiCaprio. But in The Dreamers, like in Hedwig And The Angry Inch (and even in Murder By Numbers), he allows the audience to see more in those eyes than sensitivity: There’s a deep-seated hostility born out of hurt and disappointment just below the surface in even his quietest scenes. It’s subtlety done right.

The Dreamers isn’t a perfect film, a little too squirrelly about its themes at times, frequently letting this reticence stand in for plot development. But Bertolucci knows his characters inside and out, and he seems to love them anyway. He really gets that, in films like this, characters’ flaws are ultimately worthwhile currency for exploring who they are without delving too deep into their heads. It’s an ambiguous way to get to know ambiguous people.

—Cole Sowell


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